Transparency, accountability and open government are huge themes for African citizens as the number of internet and mobile phone users jump up across the continent. People are connecting and realising that the internet provides them with a quick and easy way to engage with politics, be that via social media or citizen engagement websites.
One group have just launched a parliamentary monitoring platform for Zimbabwe using our Pombola platform. We helped them with the original set up, some small technical issues and some general platform advice, but KuvakaZim has only gotten to launch due to the huge dedication and work of its founders, Regina and Peter.
“The KuvakaZim project was born from a general concern regarding the accountability and activities of Zimbabwean Members of parliament and their duties in regard of their representative role,” Regina Dumba, lead volunteer of the project, tells the world in her press release.
“Many articles, books and studies have explored the issue of good governance in African countries and how it relates to transparency, accountability, and Government performance. Knowing the causes and effects of these plights, we believe it is now time for action in Africa and in Zimbabwe. Until we start putting words into action, only then can we rebuild our country.” She continues on the KuvakaZim blog.
Creating the site.
Regina, Cleopatra and Peter, who has been volunteering technical skills for the project, contacted mySociety in July after being inspired by Kenya’s Mzalendo. Since then they have been working tirelessly to gather MP data and information on constitutional rights, how democracy works in Zimbabwe, electoral law and political parties. The site now allows Zimbabweans to learn more about how their government works, as well as the duties of their MP and whether they are carrying these out. This has been especially timely because of the recent elections on July 31, 2013.
That’s not to say that the site has got to this stage without any hitches however..
It’s been difficult to find official boundary data for Zimbabwe, which means we haven’t yet managed to load an MP look up onto the site. The hope is that this will come in the future, along with other features such as Hansard and the potential to write to your politician.
Despite this the team have managed to gain some on the ground volunteer support and launch the site this week. If you want to learn more about KuvakaZim the check out their blog and their twitter stream. We’ll be following their progress too!
Image credits: Patola Connection by Whologwhy | Hands up by Pim Geerts | Bend in the Road by Andrew Ashton | All Creative Commons licensed photographs. Thank you for making your content creative commons.
11 months ago we put up a post offering free development time for people wanting to reuse our software.
Since then we’ve had loads of responses and helped a few dozen people take their first steps. But this week, in a short and succinct post, I wanted to remind you that this offer still stands.
There are some caveats.
In order to qualify, you must be a group or an individual who can show us that you have a desire to run online civic and democratic projects like FixMyStreet or WhatDoTheyKnow in the long term, and that you have access to some kind of web developer skills. You can be anywhere in the world bar the USA (apologies US people, our funding won’t cover your country 🙁 ).
What does commitment mean? Nothing impossible, but to make a project successful you will need a few things:
You need long-lasting enthusiasm. We’ll be looking to make sure that you understand the ongoing time and energy commitments a project like this will involve. The technical set up may be easy, but there is a lot of data that needs to be collected. There’s also awareness raising, user support and general love for the site that you’ll need to keep things going. Things start slowly…You have to give them attention to drive usage!
You may need access to a web developer – at least sometimes. While these kinds of sites do, to some extent, run themselves, some work will always be necessary to keep them running smoothly. And while our developers will help you get your site off the ground, you will need your own developer too, both at set-up, and as the site continues to run.
If you don’t have access to a developer, or you’re an NGO that’s doing a wider project of which this could be a small part. We’re also happy to talk to you to see if we can still help! Either way, just fill in this form to get in touch and give us some information about your project!
Image credit: Building by bartb_pt from Flickr under the creative commons licence.
Though mySociety does not have a specific focus on women’s education our websites are still powerful tools for learning. Education doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Nor does it stop when you leave school, college or university. Websites like Mzalendo in Kenya help educate people about their politicians. They provide information about what their representatives have said in Parliament, about their political and work experience. This information can help Kenyan citizens to hold their elected representatives to account, and to understand more about the decisions that affect their lives.
Alaveteli is perhaps an even stronger example of this. Visiting an alaveteli website not only allows you to request information, it allows you to search through information others have requested and learn from it, potentially about topics you were unaware of before. We know that in the UK each request on WhatDoTheyKnow is read by an average of 20 people. And by having that information available publicly and allowing people to educate themselves about the actions of their government, it is easier for citizens to hold those in power to account.
It seems like a FixMyStreet site might not have a connection to education. But we think it does! At the most obvious level, FixMyStreet provides councils with information. They learn where problems are in their area and gain a deeper understanding of the issues that concern their citizens. This flow of information is not just one way though. Residents that use the site suddenly find they can take ownership of the problems in their local area, and get them resolved. At times, governments – local or national – can appear to be vast and distant. By using something like FixMyStreet residents can begin to see the practical role they can play in improving their own lives. This is a very important thing to learn.
Our sites are being set up and used by people of every gender, all over the world. This is an amazing thing and one we wholly support. Access to tools for learning should not be restricted dependent on race, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. The opportunity to learn should be open to all.
The world knows Malala Yousafzai. General Ban Ki Moon said it best when he said “When the Taliban shot Malala, they showed what they feared most: a girl with a book.” Because information and education give women, and everyone else in the world, the knowledge to stand up and say “This is not right.”, to make their lives better and to take a stand for a more open, free society.
That’s one of the reasons we create the websites we create, to help people educate themselves to gain knowledge and skills which can start the process of making their societies more open, transparent and participative.
Happy International day of the Girl.
The International team are taking over a Wednesday mySociety meet up!
As you know, there is a large OGP event happening in London at the end of October. There are also a number of fringe events happening, some of which we’ll be attending, and one of which we’ll be running!
Every Wednesday mySociety holds a meet up at the Mozilla Space in London. On the evening of October 30th we are hosting a slightly larger event and want to invite anyone who is in town for OGP as well as anyone who wants to attend from London or the UK.
As always we’ll provide Pizza and Beer, as well as a range of other snacks and nibbles. We’d love it if anyone wanted to do a short lightening talk about something they’re working on. This would be really informal, no presentations, just a quick, snappy “Here’s my project, here’s why I think it’s important, here’s how you can get involved.” If that interests you, please email me at email@example.com so I know you’ll be there and be talking.
Most of all we want to meet more people from all over the world working on different projects around open data, civic engagement, social inclusion, transparency and accountability and other such topics.
We’ll be there from 6pm to 9pm, though the Mozilla space is open to anyone working on an “open project” – anything open source, open data etc – from 2:30pm. If you’re not going to be available until later in the evening, never fear! We’ll head to The Chandos, a pub just down the road, from 9pm onwards.
This is one of many events that is a part of Global Transparency Week, please do check out what else is going on!
Hope to see you there!
September 28th is International Right to Know Day. 11 years ago a number of international Freedom of Information organisations and activists came together in Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network. This network works to promote peoples’ right to access to information and open and transparent governance, and as a focus for the campaign on Right to Information, September 28th was named International Right to Know day.
Humans are a fairly sociable species, large numbers of us interact and share information on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram on a daily basis. Before the advent of the internet we shared information through SMS, phone calls and before that, through letters and face-to-face conversations. We share ideas through books, lessons and discussions. Access to information is important because it facilitates this freedom of expression and sharing.
Information is important. It allows us to make good decisions based on what we know or have found out. If that access to information is blocked, decisions people make will be faulty because they simply cannot know all the facts. For example, if you didn’t have access to information on how the current government was implementing their promises, how could you make a good decision on whether to vote for them come the next election?
Access to information is also important for educating people and helping them improve their own lives. TuDerechoASaber.es is a great example of a group of people creating a platform with the aim to make information accessible to the general public. Though there is no Right To Information law in Spain, it hasn’t stopped David Cabo curating a successful site. The beauty of which is that there is a record of every time the government refuses to reply. The hope is that this will eventually spur a change in the law, while educating people about their rights and helping them improve their knowledge.
Finally, without information being shared, would there have been revolution in the Arab world? When people have access to information about the situation in other countries, they are more likely to stand up and do something. Be that standing up to help people somewhere else, or standing up to change something where they are.
There will be a number of events happening around the world to celebrate International Right to Know Day. The Philippines are having a social media and in person event called #LightUp4FOI, lighting candles in front of their House of Representatives in Manila “to symbolise (their) desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens”. The hope is that this will help push through an FOI bill in the Philippines. In Ukraine, a local NGO are screening a documentary about the road to the 2011 Access to Information Law called Open Access. In Liberia the FOI Network has organised a parade through the streets of Fishtown City followed by a radio talk show then a CSO vs Government Officials football match. You can find information about these events, and more, on this google map.
Whatever you are doing, Happy Right to Know day!
As I mentioned on my last blog Dave and I spent this week in Geneva at OKCon.
This was my first time at OKCon and it was great to see a number of familiar faces from both OGP events and AbreLatAm. Though this was definitely a conference, unlike the Latin American unconference, there was still that feeling of being able to walk up to people and easily start chatting about the projects you’re working on. I’ve been inspired by New Zealand (and their idea of open government data as the new “business as usual”), awed by UNHCR (with their open data for humanitarian crises) and discussed the risks of people getting involved in tech for transparency movements in closed countries.
One session we attended was hosted by Code For Europe. It’s an organisation based on the Code for America example and we listened with interest to their approach, and defense when asked questions by skeptics. Their main challenge to the workshop attendees? Instead of trying to solve a huge national level problem and failing thanks to government bureaucracy, find one Civil Servant or MP that has a great idea and work with them. And in fact, some of mySociety’s best known platforms were started before we had any buy-in from the government, but knowing we had support from a few key people.
We made some great new friends, and caught up with DATAuy. Dave helped them set up FixMyStreet for Montevideo right there at the conference. This was a pretty amazing moment for us because it proved that the platforms, especially the Amazon EC2 hosted ones, really can be set up in less than a day! Don’t forget Dave is working on improving the documentation for this so if you are setting it up, please do fill in our survey.
For me, the most inspiring talk came from Jay Naidoo. He spoke about young people using technology and the internet to fight corruption as digital warriors bringing a “tsunami of hope”. The dream is that these young people can get information into the hands of the communities that can use it to hold their leaders to account. The ideal would be that we create a world free of corruption, where aid money and NGO initiatives get to those that need it most, and moreover that once it arrives, people understand how and why to use it – all because they have access to that information. You can read his blog about the talk here.
The next big event we’ll be at is OGP in London at the end of October, though we’re hoping to speak at some of the surrounding events as part of Transparency Week. Please do get in touch with us if you’re coming to OGP and want to meet up! We’d love to see you! Plus, you could join our Meet up on the 30th October and meet some mySociety staff!
OKCon main room photo by Arnaud Velten | Other photos by Jen
In a break from tradition, I’m going to start this blog with an appeal.
We on the international team at mySociety are trying to improve the install process and documentation for all of our internationalised websites. Since we built the original sites, we’re not the best people to ask on what needs to be improved, as I’m sure you understand. If you’re interested in helping us out doing this I’ve created two surveys, you’ll find them at the end of this post! Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can ask you a few questions. On to other exciting things…
In site news we are working on Alaveteli sites for Uganda and Italy. Both of these should be finished and ready for launch soon, thanks to our developers and of course our partners for showing interest.
We’ve also been helping set up a FixMyStreet site in Cape Verde and a demo FixMyStreet site for Whypoll in India. While these two sites are being installed on mySociety’s servers, three people from Singapore and two people from South Africa are also working on FixMyStreet for their countries, as self installs.
And in Pombola news we are helping with websites in South Africa, Zimbabwe and are hoping to work with a team in Malawi.
But these are just the most recent sites! People are working on sites in Uruguay, Bosnia, Croatia, Italy and a number of other countries. Follow our twitter @mysocietyintl to find out more.
We’d love to help you set up your own site, or just give you advice on why sites like these can be useful. Send me an email at email@example.com to find out how!
15th to 19th September – OKCon, Geneva (Jen and Dave)
27th to 28th September – OverTheAir, Bletchley Park (Dave)
30th Sept to 3rd October – African Entrepreneurship Summit, Mauritius (Paul)
25th to 27th October – Mozfest, London (Dave)
30th October to 1st November – OGP London (Paul and Jen)
27th to 29th November – World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)
Please do drop by and say hello!
By the way, if you are hosting a conference and want us to come along and speak (for free! We don’t charge, and a lot of the time we try to pay our own way!) please drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org . We love to connect with new people and would be delighted to be involved!
One more thing, as a p.s. Hopefully these “What we’ve been up to” updates will soon come to you in video format! Be kind to me if the first one is awkward!
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the Flexibility of FixMyStreet. Well, this is the second in that series. I’m aiming to give other ideas for uses of the code for Pombola, our monitoring website, which is currently used for Parliamentary monitoring platforms in a number of countries.
I say currently because as with all our platforms it doesn’t *have* to be used for parliamentary monitoring. In Pombola you can create a database of people, speeches and organisations, along with news streams (as a blog), social media streams and scorecards. You also have a geographical element which allows you to search for relevant local information in those databases that feed Pombola, such as your local MP.
We’re really interested in how our platforms could be used for unique uses, so if you have any other ideas don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Here are my ideas:
1) Monitoring progress towards climate change goals
The background: Climate change is a politically charged topic and many of the worlds governments have pledged to meet specific goals by 2020.  Organisations like Greenpeace are lobbying for wider recognition and stricter goals from participants.  And the impact of climate change is being attributed to everything from flooding to violence 
The concept: Create a site using the Pombola code base which has profiles of each government that has pledged to reach specific targets by 2020. The profiles would include a contact address for the department dealing with climate change, information on how often the speakers mention climate change, and information on the targets they have pledged to meet. You could scorecard each country to show how well they’ve progressed towards their goals and the best and worst would be showcased on the front page. If you had some time to do your own modifications then using a promise tracker and some infographics like a heatmap would really add to this!
Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to create an easily understandable tool for monitoring government pledges to combat climate change worldwide. It would be a great tool for lobbyists and journalists, presenting data as both visualisation and statistics. It would also allow concerned citizens to raise their views through comments on each country profile, thus starting a public dialogue on the site (though this would need moderation).
2) Monitoring hospital performance in the Middle East and Africa
The background: Hospitals in the Middle East and Africa were surveyed in 2012 by an independent research group. The group found that an average of 8.2% of patients suffered adverse effects  of healthcare management. The WHO believed that this is a failing in training and healthcare management systems , which could be addressed.
The concept: Creating a website that would keep a database of hospitals across a country. Each hospital would have a profile with a breakdown of the services they offered, the area they covered and statistics about their performance, cleanliness and staff training initiatives. A user would be able to search for their city or district and find the best closest hospital to go to for care. You would be able to scorecard the hospitals to give users a first glance view of what the care is like. This really focusses on the core functionality that Pombola gives; a database of people and organisations linked to geographical locations to make it easy for people to see useful local information at a glance.
Impact it would hope to achieve: As well as giving people the information to make the best choices about their health care, this platform could provide important data for donors to enable them to target aid money to the most needy areas. The overall aim would be to hopefully help improve the quality of care by providing the best easily accessible data to people who can help with training.
3) Stripped down disaster response database
The background: Disaster response teams respond to numerous emergencies each year but sometimes the scope of the disaster can be overwhelming . People are often separated and collecting information on who remains missing can be difficult, causing psychological strain.  Dependent on the scope and type of disaster people may be displaced for a significant amount of time.
The concept: A stripped down version of Pombola, simply involving mapping and people databases, to allow people to submit their names and the names of their families. Each person would have a status assigned to them (either missing or found) and people would be able to submit their updates via email to the central database. You could also associate found people with the aid organisation that has taken them in, so families would know who to contact. This could also allow the aid organisations to have a profile themselves, giving people the chance to comment to see if their loved ones had been found. The idea is that it would keep both the records of who is searching for people as well as the people themselves.
Impact it would hope to achieve: The idea behind this would be to bring psychological relief to friends and families searching for lost loved ones. It would be an electronic bulletin board of missing and found people, and even if people had no access to the internet, NGOs or civil society groups coordinating relief efforts could have, therefore would be able to provide a non-internet version of this service.
 Page 3 http://goo.gl/khZBPn
Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.
All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.
In the beginning…
To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.
But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”
“The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”
It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.
What was the most challenging?
According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.
“The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”
Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front […] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.
Launch and results
Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.
Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.
But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”
So what have DATA taken away from the process?
“Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”
The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. […] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”
Despite being home to the beautiful La Fiorita festival, one man still believes the authorities could do more to fix street problems in his part of Italy. Platforms existed in Venice and across other regions of Italy, so a precedent was set.
Thanks to local Claudio Carletti, the La Marche region will soon get its very own FixMyStreet platform, fatequalcosa.it, which translates as Do Something! Claudio has shared his experience of using the mySociety code and his plans for the site.
“I heard about FixMyStreet [after] reading a book called Wikicrazia where the author talked several times about mysociety.org,” Claudio explains. After exploring the mySociety sites he came across a blog post offering free developer time to help people start their freedom of information or street problem reporting projects. “I contacted [mySociety] and told them I wanted to create fixmystreet in Italy, and asked them for help. They responded immediately.”
Claudio explains, “I chose this platform after trying fixmystreet.com and discovering a really well done service and a user friendly site experience.” He tells us there is already an Italian site running a similar service aimed at councils: decorourbano.org. So Claudio’s plan is to target his site at the Italian youth, 14 to 18 year olds. “I think only a cultural revolution that uses concrete tools (like FixMyStreet) can really change the way you think and act, but I think [it’s] mainly young people who must have the tools to do so.” Plus, he tells us, the youth of today will be the older generation of tomorrow.
After an initial Skype chat with mySociety’s international team Claudio felt confident enough to try a basic install of the software himself.
“I’m not a website developer but I could do it,” Claudio explains. “My experience was using the installation through the Amazon web service. So most of the work was already done and I just ran the installation following the tutorial.”
That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. “Most of my issues came from the Ubuntu terminal commands, which I didn’t know how to use. After the release of the 1.2 platform version most of my problems were resolved. One important improvement was the automatic email service set up and the MAPIT_ID_WHITELIST feature.”
But the mailing list service run by mySociety to help self-installs was an invaluable tool for solving these problems. “Matthew [lead developer for FixMyStreet] always wrote back to my emails, spending a lot time helping me understand the problems,” Claudio says.
One of the perks of the FixMyStreet code is that it’s quite simple to change basic design elements of the site, such as colours and logos, so it can look unique from other installations. Claudio tells us, “After understanding the conf/general.yml file everything went smoothly.”
Claudio has recently begun collaborating with another user on this service, and is presenting his idea to the Projetto Kublai platform where he hopes to gain more support through their community. He’ll also be taking the project to a EU meeting in Berlin in the hopes that there might be some funding there. The launch date isn’t set but he has plans for collaboration with local schools and youth organisations. “[The youth] are more familiar with smartphones and they spend more time living in the city’s streets, because they take the bus or walk or cycle, but they don’t use cars.” And Claudio envisions these will be his superusers.
As Claudio tells the community on Projetto Kublai, “If you look at this site http://www.emptyhomes.com you understand how in reality there are no limits to the possibilities of use of the platform.” Other instances in other countries have reported any number of different types of problems. And it doesn’t just have to be email based, FixMyBarangey in the Philippines allows users to report issues using SMS.
The bigger picture behind Claudio’s installation, he tells us, is this: “Let’s say that the platform fixmystreet is a good starting point, because it works and is easy to install and use. I’d like to have the opportunity not only to bring a problem to solve; for example organizing task forces where people will agree to go and clean up an area filled with concrete waste or to sort out a pitch in order to organize a [football] tournament. This will be the site that will give the tips (video tutorial) to fix that problem. Having said so it sounds pretty utopian idea, but I also believe that if you let people participate (and give them the means to do so) they’ll believe in it and do everything they can to achieve it.”
An inspirational idea!
Romantica 2010 by Jukka Heinonen, Artisaniaflorae CC BY-NC-ND 2.0